It has become the stuff of parody in such a short time: There they are, the two starkly lit figures facing each other across their computer screens, caged in by darkness. The music sounds almost subliminally ominous notes as the contestant stares at his screen and decides whether to risk thousands of dollars. Should he (or, occasionally, she) use a "lifeline," either by polling the audience or calling a friend at home? When the moment finally arrives, the host, clad in somber colors, intones the catchphrase: "Is that your final answer?" Usually, for better or worse, it is. And if the news is good, then comes the release--the music breathes a sigh of relief, the camera pulls back, and the lights go up, revealing the audience.
The game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire was a phenomenon in its native England, and it's equally so in the United States, where the American version, hosted by Regis Philbin, premiered in August 1999 on ABC. The show's ratings during the November and February sweeps periods were Must-See-TV-challenging, even though only two contestants have actually made it to the million-dollar mark (in the UK, it has yet to happen). The other major networks have all come up with their own big-stakes game shows in response, but Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, for the moment, reigns supreme.
Lighting designer Deke Hazirjian, president of New York City Lites, believes that the show's visual style plays no small part in this. "I think it has mainstreamed that automated techno look," says Hazirjian. "Preprogrammed moving lights have obviously been around in television, but I think it's finally hit home. There's a pattern, a synchronicity with the music and camera moves that creates excitement. Not only has 'Is that your final answer?' become part of the national lexicon, I think the look has, too."
At least part of that look is copied directly from the British original. Like its counterpart, for example, the American show uses a 30' Technocrane, and relies on a complement of Vari*Lite(R) automated fixtures for its active modal shifts. But Hazirjian embellished the show in dramatic ways. "In the beginning, Michael Davies handed us the tape of the show they were shooting in England," says the LD of Millionaire's British producer, "and he said, 'that's the show I want.' We--the director, Mark Gentile, art director David Weller, and I--looked at it, and it was certainly an interesting show. But all of us felt that there were production values that could be improved. Yet we couldn't make changes until we delivered what he handed to us."
Luckily, the show's initial incarnation at New York's Sony Studios required two weeks of rehearsal, during which the LD worked closely with programmer David Arch (manning a Flying Pig Systems Wholehog II) and video operator Yogi Commars. "It was truly a theatrical tech rehearsal, which I have never done before on a TV show," says Hazirjian, winner of an Emmy for his work on Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego? "This was so complicated, between all the cueing and the computerization of the game, and the fact that it really had to be problem-free in order for the game to work and the contestants to be fairly dealt with. So we had a few-day window." Hazirjian studied the British tape to determine how its effects were achieved. "They sent us a plot, but it was really skeletal," he says. "And there were things on it, like 5k fresnels used as keys, that I hung, but that I didn't really want to use. So I hung their stuff, then I hung my stuff around it. In case there was a problem, I had a backup.
"As soon as we gave Michael Davies what he wanted, he said, 'Great, this is how it was,' " Hazirjian continues. "Then we started making changes. During rehearsal, we would redo something and show him, and ask what he thought. And he said, 'Oh, yeah, I like that better.' "
The LD says there were two main ways in which he departed from the English lighting template. "We have more varieties of Vari*Lite moves and descends," he says. "They always have the same move, it just comes down. We added programmed moves with our VL5s(TM) and VL6Bs(TM). And, we have a lot more color. They really just used white and blue. We added to the bumpers, the ins and outs and intros, and we added, and we keep adding, and in fact, we're still not finished adding."
The Vari*Lite package for Who Wants to Be a Millionaire consists of 32 VL5 wash luminaires and 12 VL6B spot luminaires, operated by Arch. "I added more VL5s, and I went from VL6s(TM) to 6Bs for more intensity," says Hazirjian. "I wanted more options and more directions, and I really wanted to enhance lighting on the audience as scenery; the audience lit as silhouette is an important part of the look. I wanted to make them more chromatic at times, and edgier."
This was a major reason the LD lost the 5ks. "They used 5ks as backlighting, but I wanted to use moving lights with dichroics, so I could get very saturated color. The light from a gelled fresnel isn't hard enough to cut through the atmosphere, especially since we're using so much smoke [courtesy of a Reel EFX DF-50 Diffusion(TM) hazer]. It lights the air, and you lose the drama, you lose the blacks. I wanted the color to be rich, because that's all I had--there's black,and then there's color. So we used VL5s as backlight, and for frontlight off the center ring."
For key lights on Philbin and the contestant in the hot seat, as well as the 10 potential contestants grouped around the ring, Hazirjian went with ETC Source Fours. "They cut through what I had to cut through, and they're infinitely controllable," he says. "Everyone's individually keyed according to flesh tones. It's only when they do their crosses that I can't use the ellipsoidals, because it's too broad a space. So I use baby spots, very steep and cut in and flagged to make it work."
One of the elements inherited from the British show was its amphitheatre-style set design. Audience bleachers are grouped around 2/3 of the circular stage, broken up by vomitories and a 30' (9m) clear area along one side where the Technocrane operates. The computerized game board in the center of the stage is topped by a circular truss from which hang a dozen VL5s; a ring beneath the set's transparent Plexiglas floor panels also holds VL5s, which throw light on parabolic-shaped mirrors in the scooped-out floor. The set itself is fairly austere. "There's no color, really, just some gold trim and gray, and everything else is surrounded in black," says Harzirjian. "So the lighting is where the color comes in. The advantage of having Vari*Lites and dichroic color at your disposal is that you can mix and change easily."
Using color on television can be tricky, however. "The TV cameras are so blue-sensitive that everything ends up looking blue," says the LD. "The greens look blue, the blues look blue, and the lavenders look blue. So getting away from blue was one of my priorities. But when you get into ambers and reds especially, you can get into a chrominance problem; the color saturation is such that it's a problem in terms of transmission." Working with the video operator, Hazirjian has become skilled at "dancing on the edge of legal levels. We wanted as much color and variation as we could get and not succumb to the chroma police. It's more like rock and roll than primetime television."
One set of instruments Hazirjian wanted to make greater use of than in the English version were the VL5s under the Plexiglas floor. "We felt those were underutilized," he says. "But because there are mirrors in there making it a parabolic reflector, when you take a top shot with the crane, all of those lights are just too much for the camera to handle." The rehearsal time helped work out the kinks. "In fact, we had to go back at one point in August because some of the interesting kaleidoscopic looks we developed were too red or too hot," he says. "We had to literally run the show, and stop everything. Since the camera moves keep changing, it changes the angle of reflection, which then changes the level. So you can't necessarily set the levels unless you're in the moment. We would run a cue, stop it where video would say to wait, freeze everybody, adjust it, and move on."
For one bumper, during which a Plexiglas panel is removed and the camera actually takes a shot from below, Hazirjian uses an almost bilious shade of green on the lower ring of VL5s. "In television, you rarely ever use green because it's not great for flesh tones, but this was the perfect opportunity to do the color of money," he says. The LD did have a problem with the floor area. "With all those Vari*Lites under the Plexi floor, and the lighting built into the scenery, there's a tremendous heat load and no place for it to come out. We had to add a ring of fans and a ventilation system underneath the flooring, and we have to be very careful about how often we run the VL5s under the floor. We cue them out and turn the fans on whenever we're not shooting."
Another hurdle for Hazirjian to get around was the Technocrane. "It has a 30' swing that you've got to constantly keep in mind and avoid," he says. "That whole piece of the pie between those entry vomitories is like 1/3 of a circle where you can't really put a light. That was one advantage of not doing the show from scratch. We already knew what the problems were." The solution is "all about where the shot or closeup is taken. When we have to light from anywhere in that quadrant of the set, it has to be timed with the camera move, so it doesn't get hit by this 30' arm. We also have to worry about shadow, which is about cueing and timing. We continue to work on it. Anything that happens within that area has to be timed out by us, the camera guys, and the crane operator."
With all the moves and color changes in the incidental moments on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, the game itself follows a set pattern in style and look. "Essentially, it's divided into thirds," says Hazirjian. "During the first five questions, which are easier and move along quickly, we don't do any descends, the audience is lit up." Audience frontlighting comes from both VL5s on the center ring, and, oddly enough, two-cell 1k Strand Iris cyclights. "This is one thing I kept from the British show, even though I had my doubts," the LD says of the cyc lights. "I saw them in the plot and I thought, 'Why in the world would you hang a light which you essentially use to light a piece of cloth on an audience? Why wouldn't you just use PARs or something?' But I determined that it actually works very well; the cutoff on the bottom is very severe, so you can keep it off the scenery and just keep it on the people. It lights the audience very flatly, and you get the added spill hitting the sides of the vomitories, which otherwise you probably would have had to use two or three other instruments to get."
In the middle section of the game, "we start the descend moves, and it's less about background. The frontlight on the audience goes away, and now they're just shapes--it's all about edge and silhouette. The show starts to build, to take on more drama." The edge comes from VL5s backlighting the audience, along with some VL6Bs streaking through, creating an increasingly closed-in feel to the central playing area. "I wanted those shafts of light to be something edible, something you could climb," Hazirjian says of the VL6B beams. "When they descend and basically trap the contestant, I wanted the contestant to feel like they were solid bars, that they couldn't get out. Also, because the floor VL5s are hitting this parabolic crackled mirror floor, that affects the ambient lighting in the room. It also hits the other contestants sitting around them." The key lights on Philbin and the contestant remain the same: "Their levels don't change; all around them changes."
Finally, when the game reaches the critical $32,000 question, "it all goes out. There are no more VL5s, no more wash units. All that's left are Source Four keys and backs for the host and contestant, and the VL6Bs cutting through as beams. The audience is literally in limbo, and the descend moves are very dramatic and strong--they really pull back. On the center wide shot and the center two-shot, the VL6 on the floor comes up between the host and the guest, and there's also a couple on a balcony. Toward the end of the show it's very stark, and the only time there's a hiccup or a change is when they start the next question. If they get it right, we go into a cue, the VL6s that were in a down position move up, and you see the audience. It's like that breath you release. And then you start the sequence again.
"The thing about the pattern of the question-and-answer and the cueing is, it's been choreographed so that the camera goes wide enough for you to see it," says Hazirjian. "So often in television, we'll do all this wonderful cueing, and the camera's in close, so you never see it. The beauty of this is, there are a couple or three shots in which you see it all happen, and it establishes the mood. Then boom, you're pulled right down into the close shot." And the music follows similar cues. "The director was very good about rehearsing all the elements--the music, the camera moves, the subtle pushes in and pulls out. We worked very hard to make it seamless."
One other group of instruments--30 High End Systems Dataflash(R) AF-1000 strobes positioned around the studio--is saved for the ultimate moment on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, when a lucky contestant makes it all the way to the grand prize. They've gone off just twice, accompanied by confetti cannons, for newly minted millionaires. "Nobody won $1 million during our first run in August, so we set them off at the end of the run," says Hazirjian. "That gave us the opportunity to look at the effect." Both the set and the Dataflashes were also used for a scene on ABC's Spin City in which a character is a contestant on a Millionaire-style show.
After the initial, hugely rated round of episodes in August, the hit game show moved from Sony to ABC's Studio 1, where it remains. "Studio 1 came with a whole complement of typical TV lighting, like fresnels and soft lights, and we couldn't use any of it," the LD says. "So we basically had them strip the grid." The grid itself tops out at 28' (8.5m), which is 2' lower than the Sony studio, so adjustments had to be made before the show returned to the air in November. "Also, the studio is more narrow, so left and right behind the audience we had less space to back off our backlights," Hazirjian says. "Luckily, what's behind the audience is black velour, so you can't tell on camera. It made it more difficult for us to get angle and to rig, but once we did it no one's the wiser. Since the show is a Disney production, I think they'll keep it there."
The designer feels imitation is definitely the sincerest form of flattery, and he says it hasn't stopped with producers at other networks trying to copy the game show's format. "There isn't a sketch show on the air that hasn't done a spoof based on the look," he says. "And I'm getting calls from people who want to have that same excitement in other kinds of sets--news and news magazine-type shows. It's a statement in art direction; it creates a sense of the future, of a technical edge." And, he adds, the "synchronicity" needed between programmed lighting, camera moves, and sound brings a collaborative urgency to the enterprise. "If you're going to do something like this, it's got to be coordinated," he says. "It requires a new operating mode."
Lighting designer Deke Hazirjian
Lighting director Bruce Ferri
Production electrician Mike Grimes
Wholehog II programmer David Arch
Video operator Yogi Commars
Lighting equipment (20) Vari*Lite VL5s with stippled lenses to hang (12) Vari*Lite VL5s with clear lenses on floor mounts (5) Vari*Lite VL6Bs to hang (5) Vari*Lite VL6Bs on floor mounts (34) ETC Source Four 19-degree ellipsoidals (2) ETC Source Four 26-degree ellipsoidals (34) ETC Source Four 575W MFL PARs (18) ETC Source Four 575W NSP PARs (20) Strand Iris 1kW 2-cell cyclights (24) Strand Pallas 1kW 1-cell groundrows (30) High End Systems Dataflash AF-1000 strobes (3) Arri 650W fresnels (2) Strand Studio 2k fresnels (2) Strand Studio 1k fresnels (2) Flying Pig Systems Wholehog II consoles (1) Reel EFX DF-50 hazer